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An online magazine for alumni and friends of U-M.
Ex-gymnast, engineer, corporate exec, and former head of Focus Hope, this third-generation alum is a leader in the creation of a new Michigan economy.
Keith Cooley is something of a phenomenon.
He has been since his days at U-M, back in the 1960s, when he was one of very few African-Americans roaming U-M's campus. That was rare enough. But he also was a third-generation African-American student. How many such families could claim that in 1967? That was the year he earned his bachelor's degree in physics, followed in 1972 by his master's degree in nuclear engineering.
Add to that Cooley's participation on U-M's 1966 Big Ten Championship gymnastics team. Cooley competed on the trampoline, a toy of white suburbia if ever there was one. But even though he saw no other trampolinists of color he saw at that Big Ten championship in Iowa, he "just loved to bounce," and he threw himself with passion into the sport.
With that kind of intelligence, drive, and passion, it's no surprise Cooley hurdled every challenge he faced in his career. Now 60, he's put in 25 years at General Motors, a few more at Motorola and General Electric, and has operated his own business. A man like Cooley doesn't really slow down for retirement, and he followed his corporate years by becoming COO and later CEO of Focus: HOPE, Detroit's renowned civil rights and anti-poverty organization. He was the first non-founder and the first African-American to hold the top job there. He loved the work, which put him in charge of an enormous and potent organization that, among other things, trains impoverished people for manufacturing and other jobs. He was making a difference in ordinary people's lives.
So, there he was, 60 years old, in great physical condition—he had run a marathon at age 55—and happy with his life. He was just beginning to entertain visions of a post-working-life existence, spending more time with his wife, Yvonne, in their nice home in Troy. He and Yvonne have a daughter and three grown sons, one of whom is a U.S. Marine stationed in Japan, whom he'd like to see more. Thrilled as he was with Focus: HOPE, he expected to work there maybe another four or five years, max, before retiring with pride.
That's what Keith Cooley was thinking in January, 2007.
And then the governor called.
Turns out Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm's staff had been gathering background for months on Keith Cooley. She needed a new Director for the Department of Labor and Economic Growth (DLEG). They already had heard about what Cooley was doing at Focus: HOPE with workforce development, a key strategic area for the governor. But as her team looked further into Cooley's credentials and his past—particularly his chops in corporate management—it was, like, wow.
DLEG has the unenviable task of working on the front lines of Michigan's gut-shot economy. It clearly needs the leadership of someone who understands business, and who, like Cooley, can also marshal nonprofit resources to help struggling workers help themselves.
The department, Cooley says, has more than 4,000 employees and a $1 billion-plus budget. "It's staggering, it's awesome. But I also know you can handle anything if you get a good team around you, you're willing to listen and learn; you can't have all the answers. And you take the responsibility serious and sort of humbly.
"I am very much in the idea of servant leader."
Cooley has operated most of his life according to that philosophy. He seems at once leader and servant. At 6 feet and 175 pounds, he cuts a commanding figure, but his warm, outgoing, passionate and engaging personality puts others at ease. Still, it's hard to imagine him on the bottom of the organizational chart; he always knows where he wants to go.
He attributes his drive—and his penchant for a little troublemaking—to his grandfather Henry David Holmes, that first U-M student back in the early 1920s. A native and resident of Jamaica, young Henry decided he wanted to practice medicine. He learned he needed a bachelor's degree. "So he forged a diploma and he came over," Cooley said. "He was a brilliant man. Fearless. He's my granddad, and he was an amazing man."
Henry's daughter attended U-M, where she met Cooley's father, Roy Van Cooley, also a medical doctor. They were the second generation at U-M. Roy Cooley helped expose discrimination in local restaurants, which promptly got him kicked out of U-M. A professor helped reinstate him. Keith was very young when his parents divorced, and he grew up in Pontiac an only child—another rarity for the time.
At Pontiac Central High School, Cooley was a little kid—5 feet-1 and 92 pounds—but he was smart. "They used to call me 'Professor' at school," he recalled. By the time he was a senior, he had grown to his current height. He also got in trouble for asking a white girl to the prom.
As for the trampoline, he had high school friends in Bloomfield with a trampoline. He was enamored, and spent hours bouncing. He enrolled in gymnastics at U-M just to bounce some more. The support of a U-M coach helped him learn and practice enough to make the team and that championship season.
He faced his share of shrouded racism, but he didn't face it quietly. As a graduate student, he was approached by some U-M faculty and staff to help establish the Minority Engineering Projects Office (MEPO), which still exists—and still has work to do, he said.
After getting his degrees, "I was ready to take on the world," he told the 2004 graduating class at U-M's School of Art & Design commencement. "Unfortunately, the world wasn't ready for me." He applied for high-end jobs, but apparently he wasn't taken seriously. The man who eventually served as an experimental physicist, project engineer, program manager and director for strategic planning—all with major corporations—was either turned down or offered entry level jobs in purchasing.
Be an agent of change, he told the 2004 graduates. "Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can."
That sums up Cooley's passion for the young Detroiters he saw coming through Focus: HOPE's unique education and training programs. He was amazed at the size of the place when he first hired in as Chief Operating Officer in 2002. What captivated him much more was what Focus: HOPE accomplished. "Taking young folks from out of this urban environment, where many of them don't think they can be successful, and many of the schools don't think they can be successful. And in spite of all that, we send them off to careers where they soar—as machinists, information technology specialists, as engineers. We figured out how to do it….We get people to believe in themselves."
Gov. Granholm couldn't have said it better. Cooley said he and his new boss already have bonded over the mission of work force development.
"With his passion for connecting Michigan workers with higher education and good jobs, Keith will be instrumental in ensuring that we have a 21st century workforce to attract new jobs and employers," she said when she announced his appointment. "He shares our commitment to see that every Michigan citizen has the tools they need to attain those jobs of the future."
Cooley, who had already started recruiting U-M deans and engineers to his Focus: HOPE adventure, figures the same U-M folks can help "make the best effort to get this state turned around." Collaboration is the mission, he the catalyst, and U-M first in line.
"Go blue," he added.